Historically Speaking-Coliseum Explosion

Information reprinted with permission of the Courier Times, local newspaper New Castle, Indiana

11/1/2013 5:51:00 PM

Historically Speaking - Coliseum explosion 
Indianapolis tragedy 50 years ago killed N.C. people

H. Ray Edwards, a well-known New Castle jeweler, decided he didn't like his seat during a Holiday On Ice performance at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum. So he and his wife decided to leave a local party and move to a better location.

That decision on Oct. 31, 1963, may have saved his life.

A gas explosion rocked the facility a short time later, killing 74 people and injuring nearly 400. Among the victims was a rural New Castle man, 60-year-old Josiah Hutchens, and Mrs. Nellie Sherman Marshall, who had been visiting the area. Hutchens, a farmer, was a two-term member of the Henry County Council.

Retired local jeweler and community activist Morris Edwards remembers his dad talking afterwards about that night.

"He talked about how lucky they were to have moved over," Edwards said. "I didn't know anything about it until I heard him telling the story the next day."

The two New Castle victims were were among 54 people killed at the scene. Another 20 later died of injuries. At least 18 families lost more than one member.

The Friday, Nov. 1, 1963, edition of The Courier-Times included a first-person account of the disaster from another member of the group, Helen Rinsch. She was seated directly across from the section where the tragedy occurred.

"It was horrible, after the terrible bang and the bodies were blown onto the floor, there was a tremendous flame that I thought would cause more damage than it did. Then debris began to fall and it mashed a lot of people.

"I don't know how anyone in that particular section came out of it alive," Rinsch added. "The bleachers blew out like they were made of cardboard."

Associated Press reports at the time said many victims were charred by flames or crushed under tumbling structural concrete slabs. The show was minutes away from ending when the tragedy occurred.

"It was a full minute before people realized that it was real," Rinsch said. "Then people had sense enough to get up and walk out of the coliseum. Many of the people were covered with blood. People were cut by the cement."

The Indianapolis Star reported propane gas had leaked from a rusty tank in a concession area, slowly filling the unventilated room. When the gas came in contact with an electric popcorn machine, a blast of orange flame reportedly shot 40 feet up through the southside seats. throwing people and chairs into the air.

New Castle resident Arthur Peterson told The Courier-Times then that he had seen "nothing like it since World War II."

"People were buried under chunks of concrete weighing 300 and 400 pounds," Peterson said. He volunteered to drive his station wagon as an ambulance all night to help victims.

More than just H. Ray Edwards were counting their blessings. Mr. and Mrs. Earl Stoops were seated just above the disaster, but received only minor injuries.

While it was, as the Star put it, "the most deadly disaster in Indianapolis history," New Castle resident Floyd Fields saw many inspirational sights that he shared in a later Courier-Times article.

"I saw men bleeding profusely from head wounds helping to lift large blocks of cement to free a total stranger," Fields wrote.

"While struggling desperately, along with Art Peterson, to free my wife, up came two strangers and gave us the extra lift we needed to raise the slab of cement and lift her over another slab propped at a crazy angle. We were only about 20 feet from the raging inferno blazing 30 feet in the air. None of us knew but what another explosion might erupt any second.

"At Community Hospital, I saw five nurses who had been on private cases all day come in one taxi to volunteer their services. At Methodist Hospital, several college students and young people were begging for an opportunity to give blood.

"These things I saw. No doubt they were duplicated in every hospital in Indianapolis.

"People can be wonderful."

Darrel Radford is a Courier-Times staff writer and board member for The Henry County Historical Society. The Historical Society museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day.